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My Autoimmune Protocol Experiment
During the month of October, I followed a strict Whole30 and a very stringent autoimmune protocol. I was curious to see if there was some underlying autoimmune business causing inflammation in my body and limiting my ability to lose body fat — or if my stubborn fat is the result of (a) the adrenal fatigue I’ve been working on for about a year and (b) having had my thyroid removed in November 2008. Those things seemed to be the likely culprits conspiring against me feeling and looking my best, but I’m always up for an interesting N=1 experiment. In the last few months, I’ve been working with a new doctor, trying new supplements and medication, and experimenting with different ways of working out. The Whole30+autoimmune protocol was an additional chapter in my N=1 saga.
If you’re new here, or need a refresher on my checkered past, you can read all the details in these previous posts:
- A Healing Experiment: to deal with adrenal and thyroid issues
- The Thyroid Experiment and Update on the Experiment
- Weight & Body Image Stuff: I Love My Body and Why is Thinner Better?
- N=1: or why self-experimentation is a pain in the butt but the only option
- Not familiar with the Whole30? Learn all about it here and get extra help with the Whole30 Daily.
Now if you’re ready, buckle up, buttercups! This is what I have to say about 30 days of the autoimmune protocol.
What I Eliminated
The autoimmune protocol is designed to eliminate foods that can be problematic for people who suffer from autoimmune diseases and/or leaky gut. I’m 99.99% sure I don’t have an underlying autoimmune issue. Some people who have thyroid challenges suffer from autoimmune disease — like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis — that causes their hypothyroidism; my hypothyroidism is the result of having my thyroid removed. (That is a sentence with a shit-ton of multi-syllabic words, no?)
But to satisfy my curiosity and to walk in the (black, stompy) boots of my readers who do have autoimmune issues, I decided to tackle a very strict Whole30 along with a very strict autoimmune protocol.
These are the things I eliminated:
— all foods excluded by the Whole30 (which is how I eat 90% of the time anyway
— seeds, including all seed-based spices
— nightshades: white potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet/hot peppers, spices derived from peppers like paprika and chile powders
— food fun
What I Thought of It
You guys, I really tried to have a good attitude. I did! But I failed. Miserably.
First, I had a stern talk with myself: Melissa Kathryn, I said, far too many people in the world don’t have food to eat at all! How dare you whine about giving up cumin and homemade mayo for a month?!
That worked for about 48 hours. So then tried to get my taste buds on board…
I invested in a bunch of dried and fresh herbs — and that led to some new recipes like Italian Pork Roast, Golden Cauliflower Soup, Cauliflower Brains, Silky Gingered Zucchini Soup (recipe coming next week), and a new chopped salad recipe for Well Fed 2. But the novelty wore off pretty quickly. I like herbs, sure, but for me, their impact is lessened without the underlying earthiness of spices. And I really, really missed the heat of hot peppers. Which brings me to…
As long as Dave and I have been a couple — that’s 20 years, my friends — our Saturday mornings have consisted of a workout followed by breakfast in a restaurant, where we eat food prepared by someone else and linger over coffee. No eggs and no hot peppers has meant no Habanero Mexican Cafe, our current Saturday morning spot. Instead, we went to the Central Market Cafe (a restaurant inside the Central Market grocery store) so I could hit the salad bar for roasted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, raw veggies, and fruit with a side of extra-virgin olive oil, while Dave ate food from the Cafe. It was a fine compromise, but it was subsistence eating, not a weekend reward for a week well done.
I Feel… The Same
The biggest bummer of all— and, ultimately, the triumph — is that I felt the entire time like I was suffering for nothing: I didn’t feel any differently without eating the forbidden foods as I did when I was enjoying them. My sleep stayed the same: between 8 and 9 restful hours per night. My skin, which always looks great during a Whole30, looked the same. My bathroom habits, clothing fit, and digestion all stayed the same — and they are always great when I follow the Whole30. This experiment was to see if I would feel better and/or lose weight, and I didn’t. I felt good to great, but no very much different than usual, and my clothes fit about the same.
Nothing dramatic happened.
Except I whined. And bitched. And stomped. And pouted. And picked at my food like a sullen teenager. There was even a day when I threw away half my salad because it was so lame, I just didn’t want to eat it. That. never. happens.
But I also experienced a deeper compassion for people who do have autoimmune issues and need to adapt their habits to accommodate their health. It’s very difficult eating out on the Whole30; it’s close to impossible while following the autoimmune protocol. Foods that I don’t think of as particularly special — Texas BBQ, an omelet, fajitas… basically, my “eating out, paleo go-to foods”— are off the table because they include paprika or peppers or eggs. So, dear friends who have autoimmune disease, I get it now, and I’ll try to keep that in mind as I develop recipes for this site. And Well Fed 2 will definitely include notes about how to adapt its Whole30 recipes to be as autoimmune-friendly as possible.
What I’m Doing Next
Whole30 & Documentation
I love the way I feel when I follow the Whole30 guidelines, so I’m sticking with them through the month of November. Keep in mind, that I don’t feel deprived when I eat Whole30-style, nor do I drive myself nutso with being Sergeant McStricterson. I eat wisely in restaurants, and I don’t stress myself out.
However, my days of documenting every morsel I put in my mouth and obsessively examining my mood and sleep patterns have come to an end. I think it’s very valuable to keep a record during an N=1 experiment, but 30-60 days is enough to gather data. There’s a risk of becoming overly-analytical, I think, and too closely monitoring our own behavior can be just as damaging as being completely clueless.
I’m not making myself an omelet with chile peppers, eggplant, cumin, and pine nuts quite yet (although that does sound tasty).
As the wrap-up of my autoimmune protocol experiment, I’m methodically following the re-introduction guidelines explained in this post at PaleoMom to slowly work eggs, nightshades, spices, and nuts back into my meals. While I’m pretty sure I’m not going to have a reaction when I start those foods again, the whole month will have been wasted if I don’t re-introduce them one at a time to make sure.
I’m as happy as a caveman at a wild boar barbecue to report that I started with hot peppers (a little early) on Day 28 of my month and had no adverse reaction. Hot peppers are back on the menu! Yesterday, I added spices to my food — Tsardust Memories in my morning spaghetti squash and last night, Mergeuz Meatballs! — and I feel just fine. I feel better than fine; I feel like my spicy self again.
Sunday, I’m eating some eggs to see how those sit with me, then the following weekend, I’ll give tomatoes a shot. I’m really looking forward to a slow-simmered tomato sauce or some freakin’ salsa at Habanero!
A Few Words on Discipline For Discipline’s Sake
Following the paleo diet can be quite challenging on its own. It sets us apart from our non-paleo friends and family, removes alcohol from social situations, and forces us to use the interrogation techniques of the Gestapo at our favorite restaurants. All of that vigilance is ratcheted up to 11+ when you take on the Whole30 — and the autoimmune protocol is damn near “off the charts” for me in terms of restriction.
I’ve found so much peace following the paleo diet (and even the Whole30 guidelines) because it doesn’t feel restrictive to me. It feels expansive, creative, nourishing, and natural. But I felt like I was on a four-letter word, with a capital-D, DIET while following the autoimmune protocol.
If you don’t have a physical reason to follow the autoimmune protocol, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to force yourself to do it. Restriction can backfire, and discipline solely for the sake of being disciplined isn’t necessary for most of us. If you’re just trying to live a healthy, happy, productive, grateful life, you don’t need to deny yourself all pleasures. Discipline for discipline’s sake is not a self-loving act, and above all else, I hope this blog reinforces the idea that I think each of us deserves to treat ourselves with love.
If you have a physical condition that warrants following a restrictive diet, honoring those restrictions is an act of self-respect and self-care. But if you’re just being strict because it makes you feel virtuous or like you’re “doing something,” I want you to stop being mean to yourself. Immediately.
More on Autoimmune Protocol
If you have physical symptoms that make you think you might benefit from the autoimmune protocol, there is a wealth of helpful information in the book It Starts With Food. Additionally, Practical Paleo includes menus with recipes for autoimmune diseases, and the PaleoMom has a metric ton of helpful blog posts on her site. Here are a few to get you started: